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33.4 Regulation of Land Use

Learning Objectives

  1. Compare the various ways in which law limits or restricts the right to use your land in any way that you decide is best for you.
  2. Distinguish between regulation by common law and regulation by public acts such as zoning or eminent domain.
  3. Understand that property owners may restrict the uses of land by voluntary agreement, subject to important public policy considerations.

Land use regulation falls into three broad categories: (1) restriction on the use of land through tort law, (2) private regulation by agreement, and (3) public ownership or regulation through the powers of eminent domain and zoning.

Regulation of Land Use by Tort Law

Tort law is used to regulate land use in two ways: (1) The owner may become liable for certain activities carried out on the real estate that affect others beyond the real estate. (2) The owner may be liable to persons who, upon entering the real estate, are injured.

Landowner’s Activities

The two most common torts in this area are nuisance and trespass. A common-law nuisanceA common-law nuisance is an interference with the use and enjoyment of one’s land. is an interference with the use and enjoyment of one’s land. Examples of nuisances are excessive noise (especially late at night), polluting activities, and emissions of noxious odors. But the activity must produce substantial harm, not fleeting, minor injury, and it must produce those effects on the reasonable person, not on someone who is peculiarly allergic to the complained-of activity. A person who suffered migraine headaches at the sight of croquet being played on a neighbor’s lawn would not likely win a nuisance lawsuit. While the meaning of nuisance is difficult to define with any precision, this common-law cause of action is a primary means for landowners to obtain damages for invasive environmental harms.

A trespassThe wrongful physical invasion of or entry upon land possessed by another. is the wrongful physical invasion of or entry upon land possessed by another. Loud noise blaring out of speakers in the house next door might be a nuisance but could not be a trespass, because noise is not a physical invasion. But spraying pesticides on your gladiolas could constitute a trespass on your neighbor’s property if the pesticide drifts across the boundary.

Nuisance and trespass are complex theories, a full explanation of which would consume far more space than we have. What is important to remember is that these torts are two-edged swords. In some situations, the landowner himself will want to use these theories to sue trespassers or persons creating a nuisance, but in other situations, the landowner will be liable under these theories for his own activities.

Injury to Persons Entering the Real Estate

Traditionally, liability for injury has depended on the status of the person who enters the real estate.

Trespassers

If the person is an intruder without permission—a trespasser—the landowner owes him no duty of care unless he knows of the intruder’s presence, in which case the owner must exercise reasonable care in his activities and warn of hidden dangers on his land of which he is aware. A known trespasser is someone whom the landowner actually sees on the property or whom he knows frequently intrudes on the property, as in the case of someone who habitually walks across the land. If a landowner knows that people frequently walk across his property and one day he puts a poisonous chemical on the ground to eliminate certain insects, he is obligated to warn those who continue to walk on the grounds. Intentional injury to known trespassers is not allowed, even if the trespasser is a criminal intent on robbery, for the law values human life above property rights.

Children

If the trespasser is a child, a different rule applies in most states. This is the doctrine of attractive nuisanceA thing or condition on land that is attractive to small children and represents a distinct hazard to their health or well-being.. Originally this rule was enunciated to deal with cases in which something on the land attracted the child to it, like a swimming pool. In recent years, most courts have dropped the requirement that the child must have been attracted to the danger. Instead, the following elements of proof are necessary to make out a case of attractive nuisance (Restatement of Torts, Section 339):

  1. The child must have been injured by a structure or other artificial condition.
  2. The possessor of the land (not necessarily the owner) must have known or should have known that young children would be likely to trespass.
  3. The possessor must have known or should have known that the artificial condition exists and that it posed an unreasonable risk of serious injury.
  4. The child must have been too young to appreciate the danger that the artificial condition posed.
  5. The risk to the child must have far outweighed the utility of the artificial condition to the possessor.
  6. The possessor did not exercise reasonable care in protecting the child or eliminating the danger.

Old refrigerators, open gravel pits, or mechanisms that a curious child would find inviting are all examples of attractive nuisance. Suppose Farmer Brown keeps an old buggy on his front lawn, accessible from the street. A five-year-old boy clambers up the buggy one day, falls through a rotted floorboard, and breaks his leg. Is Farmer Brown liable? Probably so. The child was too young to appreciate the danger posed by the buggy, a structure. The farmer should have appreciated that young children would be likely to come onto the land when they saw the buggy and that they would be likely to climb up onto the buggy. Moreover, he should have known, if he did not know in fact, that the buggy, left outside for years without being tended, would pose an unreasonable risk. The buggy’s utility as a decoration was far overbalanced by the risk that it posed to children, and the farmer failed to exercise reasonable care.

Licensees

A nontrespasser who comes onto the land without being invited, or if invited, comes for purposes unconnected with any business conducted on the premises, is known as a licenseeA noninvitee to the land, such as a social guest, a salesman not invited by the owner to the property, or someone else not on the property for an invited business purpose.. This class of visitors to the land consists of (1) social guests (people you invite to your home for a party); (2) a salesman, not invited by the owner, who wishes to sell something to the owner or occupier of the property; and (3) persons visiting a building for a purpose not connected with the business on the land (e.g., students who visit a factory to see how it works). The landowner owes the same duty of care to licensees that he owes to known trespassers. That is, he must warn them against hidden dangers of which he is aware, and he must exercise reasonable care in his activities to ensure that they are not injured.

Invitees

A final category of persons entering land is that of inviteeA person who has been invited onto real property for purpose of potential economic benefit to the owner or occupier of the land.. This is one who has been invited onto the land, usually, though not necessarily, for a business purpose of potential economic benefit to the owner or occupier of the premises. This category is confusing because it sounds as though it should include social guests (who clearly are invited onto the premises), but traditionally social guests are said to be licensees.

Invitees include customers of stores, users of athletic and other clubs, customers of repair shops, strollers through public parks, restaurant and theater patrons, hotel guests, and the like. From the owner’s perspective, the major difference between licensees and invitees is that he is liable for injuries resulting to the latter from hidden dangers that he should have been aware of, even if he is not actually aware of the dangers. How hidden the dangers are and how broad the owner’s liability is depends on the circumstances, but liability sometimes can be quite broad. Difficult questions arise in lawsuits brought by invitees (or business invitees, as they are sometimes called) when the actions of persons other than the landowner contribute to the injury.

The foregoing rules dealing with liability for persons entering the land are the traditional rules at common law. In recent years, some courts have moved away from the rigidities and sometimes perplexing differences between trespassers, licensees, and invitees. By court decision, several states have now abolished such distinctions and hold the proprietor, owner, or occupier liable for failing to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition. According to the California Supreme Court,

A man’s life or limb does not become less worthy of protection by the law nor a loss less worthy of compensation under the law because he has come upon the land of another without permission or with permission but without a business purpose. Reasonable people do not ordinarily vary their conduct depending upon such matters, and to focus upon the status of the injured party as a trespasser, licensee, or invitee in order to determine the question whether the landowner has a duty of care, is contrary to our modern social mores and humanitarian values. Where the occupier of land is aware of a concealed condition involving in the absence of precautions an unreasonable risk of harm to those coming in contact with it and is aware that a person on the premises is about to come in contact with it, the trier of fact can reasonably conclude that a failure to warn or to repair the condition constitutes negligence. Whether or not a guest has a right to expect that his host will remedy dangerous conditions on his account, he should reasonably be entitled to rely upon a warning of the dangerous condition so that he, like the host, will be in a position to take special precautions when he comes in contact with it.Rowland v. Christian, 443 P.2d 561 (Cal. 1968).

Private Regulation of Land Use by Agreement

A restrictive covenant is an agreement regarding the use of land that “runs with the land.” In effect, it is a contractual promise that becomes part of the property and that binds future owners. Violations of covenants can be redressed in court in suits for damages or injunctions but will not result in reversion of the land to the seller.

Usually, courts construe restrictive covenants narrowly—that is, in a manner most conducive to free use of the land by the ultimate owner (the person against whom enforcement of the covenant is being sought). Sometimes, even when the meaning of the covenant is clear, the courts will not enforce it. For example, when the character of a neighborhood changes, the courts may declare the covenant a nullity. Thus a restriction on a one-acre parcel to residential purposes was voided when in the intervening thirty years a host of businesses grew up around it, including a bowling alley, restaurant, poolroom, and sewage disposal plant.Norris v. Williams, 54 A.2d 331 (Md. 1947).

An important nullification of restrictive covenants came in 1947 when the US Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional racially restrictive covenants, which barred blacks and other minorities from living on land so burdened. The Supreme Court reasoned that when a court enforces such a covenant, it acts in a discriminatory manner (barring blacks but not whites from living in a home burdened with the covenant) and thus violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws.Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1947).

Public Control of Land Use through Eminent Domain

The government may take private property for public purposes. Its power to do so is known as eminent domain. The power of eminent domain is subject to constitutional limitations. Under the Fifth Amendment, the property must be put to public use, and the owner is entitled to “just compensation” for his loss. These requirements are sometimes difficult to apply.

Public Use

The requirement of public use normally means that the property will be useful to the public once the state has taken possession—for example, private property might be condemned to construct a highway. Although not allowed in most circumstances, the government could even condemn someone’s property in order to turn around and sell it to another individual, if a legitimate public purpose could be shown. For example, a state survey in the mid-1960s showed that the government owned 49 percent of Hawaii’s land. Another 47 percent was controlled by seventy-two private landowners. Because this concentration of land ownership (which dated back to feudal times) resulted in a critical shortage of residential land, the Hawaiian legislature enacted a law allowing the government to take land from large private estates and resell it in smaller parcels to homeowners. In 1984, the US Supreme Court upheld the law, deciding that the land was being taken for a public use because the purpose was “to attack certain perceived evils of concentrated property ownership.”Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229 (1984). Although the use must be public, the courts will not inquire into the necessity of the use or whether other property might have been better suited. It is up to government authorities to determine whether and where to build a road, not the courts.

The limits of public use were amply illustrated in the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision of Kelo v. New London,Kelo v. New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005). in which Mrs. Kelo’s house was condemned so that the city of New London, in Connecticut, could create a marina and industrial park to lease to Pfizer Corporation. The city’s motives were to create a higher tax base for property taxes. The Court, following precedent in Midkiff and other cases, refused to invalidate the city’s taking on constitutional grounds. Reaction from states was swift; many states passed new laws restricting the bases for state and municipal governments to use powers of eminent domain, and many of these laws also provided additional compensation to property owners whose land was taken.

Just Compensation

The owner is ordinarily entitled to the fair market value of land condemned under eminent domain. This value is determined by calculating the most profitable use of the land at the time of the taking, even though it was being put to a different use. The owner will have a difficult time collecting lost profits; for instance, a grocery store will not usually be entitled to collect for the profits it might have made during the next several years, in part because it can presumably move elsewhere and continue to make profits and in part because calculating future profits is inherently speculative.

Taking

The most difficult question in most modern cases is whether the government has in fact “taken” the property. This is easy to answer when the government acquires title to the property through condemnation proceedings. But more often, a government action is challenged when a law or regulation inhibits the use of private land. Suppose a town promulgates a setback ordinance, requiring owners along city sidewalks to build no closer to the sidewalk than twenty feet. If the owner of a small store had only twenty-five feet of land from the sidewalk line, the ordinance would effectively prevent him from housing his enterprise, and the ordinance would be a taking. Challenging such ordinances can sometimes be difficult under traditional tort theories because the government is immune from suit in some of these cases. Instead, a theory of inverse condemnation has developed, in which the plaintiff private property owner asserts that the government has condemned the property, though not through the traditional mechanism of a condemnation proceeding.

Public Control of Land Use through Zoning

ZoningA process by which a city or other municipality regulates the type of activity to be permitted. is a technique by which a city or other municipality regulates the type of activity to be permitted in geographical areas within its boundaries. Though originally limited to residential, commercial, and industrial uses, today’s zoning ordinances are complex sets of regulations. A typical municipality might have the following zones: residential with a host of subcategories (such as for single-family and multiple-family dwellings), office, commercial, industrial, agricultural, and public lands. Zones may be exclusive, in which case office buildings would not be permitted in commercial zones, or they may be cumulative, so that a more restricted use would be allowed in a less restrictive zone. Zoning regulations do more than specify the type of use: they often also dictate minimum requirements for parking, open usable space, setbacks, lot sizes, and the like, and maximum requirements for height, length of side lots, and so on.

Nonconforming Uses

When a zoning ordinance is enacted, it will almost always affect existing property owners, many of whom will be using their land in ways no longer permitted under the ordinance. To avoid the charge that they have thereby “taken” the property, most ordinances permit previous nonconforming uses to continue, though some ordinances limit the nonconforming uses to a specified time after becoming effective. But this permission to continue a nonconforming use is narrow; it extends only to the specific use to which the property was put before the ordinance was enacted. A manufacturer of dresses that suddenly finds itself in an area zoned residential may continue to use its sewing machines, but it could not develop a sideline in woodworking.

Variances

Sometimes an owner may desire to use his property in ways not permitted under an existing zoning scheme and will ask the zoning board for a variancePermission by zoning authorities to carry on a nonconforming use.—authority to carry on a nonconforming use. The board is not free to grant a variance at its whim. The courts apply three general tests to determine the validity of a variance: (1) The land must be unable to yield a reasonable return on the uses allowed by the zoning regulation. (2) The hardship must be unique to the property, not to property generally in the area. (3) If granted, the variance must not change the essential character of the neighborhood.

Key Takeaway

Land use regulation can mean (1) restrictions on the use of land through tort law, (2) private regulation—by agreement, or (3) regulation through powers of eminent domain or zoning.

Exercises

  1. Give one example of the exercise of eminent domain. In order to exercise its power under eminent domain, must the government actually take eventual ownership of the property that is “taken”?
  2. Felix Unger is an adult, trespassing for the first time on Alan Spillborghs’s property. Alan has been digging a deep grave in his backyard for his beloved Saint Bernard, Maximilian, who has just died. Alan stops working on the grave when it gets dark, intending to return to the task in the morning. He seldom sees trespassers cutting through his backyard. Felix, in the dark, after visiting the local pub, decides to take a shortcut through Alan’s yard and falls into the grave. He breaks his leg. What is the standard of care for Alan toward Felix or other infrequent trespassers? If Alan has no insurance for this accident, would the law make Alan responsible?
  3. Atlantic Cement owns and operates a cement plant in New York State. Nearby residents are exposed to noise, soot, and dust and have experienced lowered property values as a result of Atlantic Cement’s operations. Is there a common-law remedy for nearby property owners for losses occasioned by Atlantic’s operations? If so, what is it called?